For Whom is Classical Education Intended?
~ by Dr. Amy Richards ~
Is classical education only for the most academically gifted students? Often, we associate classical education with a rigorous academic program for the brightest students. We might suppose that classical education’s purpose is to expose these academically gifted students to the tools of grammar, logic, rhetoric, and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium in order to prepare them to study the philosophy and theology that will ground their understanding of the world as they take their place as future leaders. And this is partially true, as far as it goes. Classical education does strive to equip students with these tools, and these tools are crucial to effective and humane leadership. But such leadership is not their primary purpose. These tools are the liberal arts, the arts that free us to live as fully human beings. As Stratford Caldecott says, “education is not primarily about the acquisition of information. It is not even about the acquisition of ‘skills’ in the conventional sense, to equip us for particular roles in society. It is about how we become more human (and therefore more free, in the truest sense of that word). This is a broader and deeper question, but no less practical. Too often we have not been educating our humanity. We have been educating ourselves for doing rather than being.” While the liberal arts can serve instrumental purposes in helping students to reach academic and, eventually, professional goals, their primary purpose is to free students for contemplation.
St. Paul recognized contemplation as central to the Christian life in his exhortation to the Philippians: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The foundational belief of classical education is that the trivium and quadrivium—grounded in piety, and prepared for through music and gymnastic (see The Liberal Arts Tradition by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain!)—truly are the tools of thought that allow us to think well about the things that are worthy of praise. And this thinking stands at the center of the truly human being for which we were created, seeing and delighting in the riches of God through communion with other persons and enjoyment of what is true and good and beautiful in the world. This contemplative foundation is essential for the right direction of all lesser instrumental ends. Once we see that classical education is oriented towards this kind of being, rather than towards challenging modes of doing, we begin to see that such an education should not be limited to the most academically gifted students. For all students deserve to be led towards what is true, good, and beautiful. All students should be offered an education that presents them with the tools of the liberal arts to free them to engage with the truly human things, which, on a Christian understanding, are also deeply connected with the divine as we are made in God’s image.
But can all students succeed in a classical program? Are there some students, those who need a great deal of remedial academic assistance, who are simply not capable of mastering the trivium and quadrivium? Here I find a quote from Quintilian’s Institutio Oratia particularly helpful (with thanks to Cheryl Swope for introducing me to it): “There is no foundation for the complaint that only a small minority of human beings have been given the power to understand what is taught them, the majority being so slow-witted that they waste time and labor. On the contrary, you will find the greater number quick to reason and prompt to learn. This is natural to man. . . . ‘but some have more talent than others.’ I agree: then some will achieve more and some less, but we never find one who has not achieved something by his efforts.” Yes, some students will need extra help with the material presented to them. And yes, the texts of a classical curriculum might be more difficult than those used in other modes of education. But if we agree that classical education centers on the truly human things—and is thus, in a sense, true education, education for being—then we ought to offer such an education to all children to the degree they are able to enter into it. And if certain students will not be able to progress as far into this—as into any—type of learning as some of their peers, what they do achieve will feed their souls as well as their minds. And how far such students can go might indeed surprise us, for truth, goodness, and beauty call us upwards, and our pursuit of them will often take us beyond that which we (and others) might have thought ourselves capable.
So, how can we help make classical education available to all students? First, we need to see the why, which I begin to outline above, and which many of you have already glimpsed if you are connected with Scholé Academy and Classical Academic Press! And then we need to work together to find the most effective how, the most effective means through which to offer this education to students with various kinds of disabilities and learning differences. We need to find special education resources and see how they can be adapted for use in classical education. And we need to see how certain tools already in the classical repertoire—like the use of rhythm and song in the lower grades—might be put to effective use for students with disabilities and learning differences in particular. This is important work to which we are called by the principles at the heart of Christian classical education. In light of this truth, it is my great pleasure to introduce the new Center for Students with Learning Differences at Scholé Academy. This Center will help students with learning differences, such as dyslexia or dyscalculia, to thrive in Scholé Academy courses by providing them with specialized tutoring offered by qualified educators trained to assist students with these types of learning challenges. It has been a joyful part of my work in Eastern University’s Master of Arts in Classical Teaching Program to collaborate with Scholé Academy Director Joelle Hodge as she develops this tutoring center. The opening of the tutoring center is a beautiful step towards offering the riches of classical education to all students. I am excited to see it launch and flourish!
If you are interested in exploring these ideas further, I recommend the following wonderful resources:
- Stratford Caldecott, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education
- Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition
- Cheryl Swope, Simply Classical: A Beautiful Education for Any Child
I have also been inspired by classical schools already dedicated to welcoming and supporting students with disabilities and learning differences, including:
Amy Gilbert Richards, PhD is Affiliate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Eastern University. She also teaches in Eastern’s Templeton Honors College (THC), dedicated to great books and great questions. Over the last three years, she has helped to develop the THC’s new Master of Arts in Classical Teaching. Building on her previous work in philosophical and theological anthropology, she teaches a course in this program called ‘Difference and Human Dignity in the Great Tradition’, which is dedicated both to developing an understanding of what it is to be human through the lens of disability and difference, and to offering practical techniques for classical classroom approaches for students with special needs. Also of note, Dr. Richards and Classical Academic Press have recently begun a collaboration project on a book related to her work in this course—more coming soon! She lives in Havertown, PA with her husband and their three small girls.